social impact

What if college students had to create public art projects that maximized social impact?

College students in Mumbai are addressing the needs of their city through school projects. They have created and implemented, with police support, murals, political commentary, repurposing of places that are frequently peed on (you read that right), and play spaces soliciting community feedback. They also created "The White Wall Project: A whitewashed wall, stage and canopy" to inspire gatherings, performances, and film screenings."

But my absolute favorite of these college students' projects were the ones that interacted directly with young children. They created playgrounds in the slums made from reused materials (tires, bamboo scaffolding). They hosted interactive art festivals fostering creative self-expression. And they performed plays inspired by the oral history of Mumbai on top of buildings next to public squares. Who said a rooftop can't be a stage?

Through these initiatives, read: university projects, these students have begun to transform the largest city in the world. Living in India I'm all too aware of the filth and forever-accumulating garbage in the streets preventing public gatherings. One college student began stenciling an image of Gandhi which ignited into a public-cleaning campaign and now, these inspiring college students, are also cleaning the streets of their beloved city. This is the next generation of India.

This is what higher education could be. 

What if teacher-training involved public speaking and audience engagement?

What if teacher-training involved public speaking and audience engagement? 

This is one of the most powerful TED talks I've ever seen regarding our current state of education and teacher-training. For years I've been advocating for teachers to have training in how to understand, respond to, and react to their audience- their students. I think it a huge disservice to students when teachers aren't excited, engaged, and animated about content. This guy says teachers should watch rappers and preachers and take notes on how they engage their audiences. Amen.

The Sadhana Forest Tour (with me as your guide)

tumblr_nvcef1JjFB1ray50qo5_400.jpg
tumblr_nvcef1JjFB1ray50qo7_400.jpg
tumblr_nvcef1JjFB1ray50qo8_400.jpg
tumblr_nvcef1JjFB1ray50qo2_400.jpg
tumblr_nvcef1JjFB1ray50qo4_400.jpg

THE SADHANA FOREST TOUR

My favorite part of volunteering at Sadhana Forest: giving a 2-hour tour of the community and our reforestation work, at least once per week, but often 2-3 times per week to school groups, tourists, and locals. I tell the stories that make up our history, the multitude of ways in which Sadhana Forest manages resources and conserves water, about our other projects inside India and around the world, the principles and values we live by, and our innovative, time-tested tree-planting methods. It’s exhilarating. I expend all of my energy and enthusiasm sharing with anywhere from 1-150 strangers at a time, what is so special about this place I call my home. I enjoy “reading” my audience and assuaging their potential boredom with humorous anecdotes. It’s such a great feeling to affect a huge group of people with laughter, and subtly encourage them to think about their effect on the environment and each other.

Side story: This also means that I’ve created a sort of celebrity for myself and can’t go anywhere within a 10-kilometer radius without being recognized. It’s lovely, it really is. But I know a bit what celebrities feel like now; sometimes I just want to be anonymous and drink a cup of coffee in a café while reading or drawing. Quiet time, you know? My best Kate-sighting experience occurred when I was looking for an art store in Pondicherry and I stopped into a random clothing shop to ask for directions. The man behind the counter smiled a huge smile and whipped out his phone to show me a video of ME doing the tour at Sadhana Forest! He then proceeded to walk me to the art store I was looking for. Super kind and wonderful. (And a bit scary that strangers have videos of me speaking about reforestation. Things I never dreamed of.)

What if all products had to be disassemble-able so they could have multiple lives?

What if we exposed children to the idea that resources are finite, and products become obsolete too quickly? What if we challenged children to create products from their previous counterparts? What if all products had to be disassemble-able so they could have multiple lives? Wait a minute! Children naturally do this! They takes things apart and put them back together and take them apart and make new things! This is a huge conversation that, I believe, we should be having with children. Let's inspire them to create not just from what we already have, but with the idea that what they create will not be an end in itself.

In this video they explore the idea that products should be made in a way that make them easily disassemble-able so they can go back to their manufacturer at the end of their life to be reused in new incarnations. I like the idea of companies re-hacking their own products. 

Art Break Day

tumblr_nv0wbgDpvL1ray50qo1_1280.jpg
tumblr_nv0wbgDpvL1ray50qo3_1280.jpg
tumblr_nv0wbgDpvL1ray50qo4_1280.jpg
tumblr_nv0wbgDpvL1ray50qo9_1280.jpg
tumblr_nv0wbgDpvL1ray50qo10_1280.jpg
tumblr_nv0wbgDpvL1ray50qo6_1280.jpg
tumblr_nv0wbgDpvL1ray50qo7_1280.jpg
tumblr_nv0wbgDpvL1ray50qo2_1280.jpg
tumblr_nv0wbgDpvL1ray50qo8_1280.jpg
tumblr_nv0wbgDpvL1ray50qo5_1280.jpg

ART BREAK DAY 

Last year I attended Art Break Day and had a blast drawing with local kids and getting a feel for the larger creative Auroville community. Over the course of the year I became very close with Krupa, the event’s producer, and since this year’s event was occurring 2 days before I left India I just had to go! I spent the whole day volunteering for the event, which meant handing out supplies, making art, meeting people, seeing old friends, and yes, being a unicorn. It was one of my many perfect endings to a life-changing year of experiences.

Art Break Day happens all over the world on the same day as a kind of simultaneous burst of creative expression. School groups came, students with special needs, local families, and tourists. It was so special to see everyone being so serious and intent on their art. Many people stayed for hours, totaling about 200 people from 10am-5pm. The theme, “I am…”, encouraged an array of ideas, one of my favorites being “I am the mockingjay.” Aren’t all of us activists and social developers in some way mockingjays?

After spending a year as the director of the 3rd most visited site in Auroville and the largest residential volunteer community in India, Sadhana Forest, I have met so many people! Art Break was kind of like a stroll through the past year or a goodbye party of sorts as I felt what’s so special about Auroville and recognized how enmeshed I became in this world. It’s amazing how quickly you can make a home for yourself.

I am the world.
I am wandering.
I am now.

What if students engaged in their own community re-purposing, co-creating their environments through street art and getting to know their neighbors?


What if students engaged in their own community re-purposing, co-creating their environments through street art and getting to know their neighbors? 

I am so inspired by Candy Chang. She creates community forums in unused public spaces that bring people and ideas closer together. What if students were exposed to the following projects and challenged to engage their communities through unused public spaces? 

Here are my Candy Change favorites: 

Before I Die is probably Candy's most widespread project. It turns the side of an abandoned building into a chalkboard of wishes, dreams, and bucket lists. The project gained so much popularity that Candy designed stencil kits, in different languages, that she sends around the world, upon request, so that "Before I Die" walls can be recreated elsewhere. What a way to share with and inspire your neighbors and motivate yourself to follow your dreams! 

Neighborland is "an online/public installation tool for civic collaboration. Organizations can ask questions to their community about the places they care about. These questions are tied to real world projects so residents’ ideas and feedback will lead to change." Say what? The people have a voice? And someone wants to listen? Hell yeah! This project aims to solve local issues through community feedback. One example asked for ways to make a particular street safer. 

Community Chalkboards "provide residents with a free and accessible platform to publicize events, post jobs, ask questions, and self-organize... Inspired by a community chalkboard in Liberia by Alfred Sirleaf." What a way to repurpose the chalkboard! In small communities, particularly where not everyone has internet access, a community events chalkboard is a brilliant way to gather your neighbors and share. 

This installation consisted of a wall of post-it notes that were pre-stamped with fill-in-the-blank statements about the number of rooms in your apartment and how much you pay in rent. I love that this installation seeks information that neighbors are too shy to ask each other but really want to know. This was inspired by the Illegal Art "To Do" project, which created a mural of post-it notes in the shape of the words "TO DO" so that passersby could share their daily "to do" lists. After all, we all have them, right? 


The Local Community

The Local Community    When I think of community I always imagine the organic nature of it, like a loose web floating in air that continually gets more entangled in slow motion so that you only understand the depths of connection when you step back or see it from another angle. It dawned on me yesterday that my community in India are the local people and not so much the people in my reforestation community.   I drive through town waving to my neighbor children, swerving around cows, stopping to see my coconut guy who has the best, juiciest coconuts, having a tea in the café and hearing my name yelled from across the terrace when it is ready in a Tamil accent: “Kay-tee!”   I sit in a cafe to read my book and look up to see Shakthi, smiling his huge toothy smile, asking if he can take a few minutes of my time. Shakthi runs dance parties for the children in local special needs schools. I’ve attended the parties and they are fabulous: blaring Tamil pop-music, children dancing around the room, children sitting and watching, children singing along, children with physical needs being swept around the room in the arms of a teacher or volunteer, laughing with delight. Shakthi refuses to charge for this service and he refuses media and press. He is not doing this for recognition; he just wants to offer the children a moment that isn’t hard or frustrating. He wants to create spaces of joy. And he does. We chat for an hour or so planning a visit for his children to Sadhana Forest.   Again I am struck by the relationships and friendships I’ve developed over this year with the locals. I’ve been excited for the next chapter in my life, to move onto another community, another country, something different. It’s been eagerness and anticipation that I feel most. This week thinking about the people who live here who’ve touched me with their open hearts and stories and invitations to dinner with their families I’m overcome with sadness. This is what I’ll miss. This is what community means to me.

The Local Community 

When I think of community I always imagine the organic nature of it, like a loose web floating in air that continually gets more entangled in slow motion so that you only understand the depths of connection when you step back or see it from another angle. It dawned on me yesterday that my community in India are the local people and not so much the people in my reforestation community.

I drive through town waving to my neighbor children, swerving around cows, stopping to see my coconut guy who has the best, juiciest coconuts, having a tea in the café and hearing my name yelled from across the terrace when it is ready in a Tamil accent: “Kay-tee!”

I sit in a cafe to read my book and look up to see Shakthi, smiling his huge toothy smile, asking if he can take a few minutes of my time. Shakthi runs dance parties for the children in local special needs schools. I’ve attended the parties and they are fabulous: blaring Tamil pop-music, children dancing around the room, children sitting and watching, children singing along, children with physical needs being swept around the room in the arms of a teacher or volunteer, laughing with delight. Shakthi refuses to charge for this service and he refuses media and press. He is not doing this for recognition; he just wants to offer the children a moment that isn’t hard or frustrating. He wants to create spaces of joy. And he does. We chat for an hour or so planning a visit for his children to Sadhana Forest.

Again I am struck by the relationships and friendships I’ve developed over this year with the locals. I’ve been excited for the next chapter in my life, to move onto another community, another country, something different. It’s been eagerness and anticipation that I feel most. This week thinking about the people who live here who’ve touched me with their open hearts and stories and invitations to dinner with their families I’m overcome with sadness. This is what I’ll miss. This is what community means to me.

What if schools engaged students in addressing community needs?


What if students were coached through design projects and taught how to choose materials and use power tools to alleviate an immediate social need like housing for the homeless?  

At Project H, children have built a 2,000-square-foot farmers market structure, iconic downtown landmarks, farmstands, playgrounds, school gardens, an obstacle course, public chicken coops, a school library, and a tiny home (for the homeless that is being made now). This purpose-driven project is engaging 9-17 year-olds in social responsibility through creatively solving current issues. And the students are learning physical as well as social skills along the way. 

What if school curriculums were focused around the communities they serve? What if there were no cookie-cutter curriculums, and instead students, teachers, and administration worked together to choose areas of study based on community need. Think of the impact! Think of the teamwork, resourcefulness, and learning that could happen! Think of the relationship that would be fostered between the school and community! Think of the changing role of teacher from a provider of information to a facilitator of social change. 

What if teachers were the most prepared people to do the teaching?

As a country we spend more money per child than any of the top performing countries in the world. When I say "top performing" I am referring to countries that focus on critical thinking, creative problem solving, and persistence as the gateway to deeper learning in academic areas like reading, writing, and mathematics. In these countries, while spending less per student, teachers have class sizes that are noticeably larger than here in the States and they have considerably less outside support for student's with special needs. And the students are still outperforming ours. How is this happening with less money and less individualized support? The reason is teacher training. In Finland, which is so often talked about as a model for better education, teachers spend 6 years training!!!! Teach for America and NY Teaching Fellows churn out teachers in less than 2 years and place them in extremely difficult schools. No wonder there are crazy high teacher attrition rates! In some countries teachers get a Masters in their intended field so they can become experts, and then they go to a teacher-training school for 2 years. In order to get licensed, teachers write persuasive arguments about how they would solve hypothetical classroom problems, instead of taking 3-hour multiple choice tests about content that's often not even related to what they'll be teaching. What if instead of pouring money into students we poured it into teacher training? 

What if great, progressive graduate programs got some state funding to train more teachers?

What if a degree from a "critical-thinking school" meant a higher salary? Unfortunately, spending $1.3B on smaller class size or more professional development for teachers is not hitting the target. Teachers need to be prepared BEFORE they are in the trenches. Teaching is an incredibly difficult and time-consuming job. And it should be. As a teacher you usually have more than 20 children's lives in your hands for 180 days. And that's often more time than they are spending with their families. Being able to have that large an impact on someone's life is a huge responsibility and not something an hour of coaching once a week in a subject area is going to improve that much. Teachers need to learn how to teach critical thinking and creative problem solving. Not better reading. What leads to better reading are children who can come up with strategies on their own instead of being given them by the teacher. What's needed are way more restrictions to become a teacher, with teacher assessments that match those high expectations. If we want our students to do better we need our teachers to be better.

What if teachers were fired for not doing their job well?

In most professions employees receive warnings that lead to getting fired when they do not perform their job to a certain level of standards. Imagine that teachers who fail their students by ignoring IEPs, playing favorites, grading inconsistently from their colleagues or the Common Core Standards, got fired. When students and parents complain enough, in the current system, teachers who are a year away from retirement can be convinced to retire early. This only accounts for a very small portion of poor-performing teachers. What if teachers had to always do their job well in order to keep their job? What if teachers couldn't hide behind tenure with poor-performance? What if teachers worked hard because they had to? What if teachers didn't have unlimited job security? What if tenure didn't exist?

Hearts of the World

tumblr_npxnyzht1C1ray50qo1_1280.jpg
tumblr_npxnyzht1C1ray50qo2_1280.jpg

Through the New York art scene I was introduced to friends of friends who have a project called Hearts of the World. They travel to the far reaches of the planet inspiring children to follow their dreams, overcome their fears, and discover their ideas and choices about life. I was excited to be able to invite them to Children’s Land, at Sadhana Forest, a project that gives maximum choice to local children in the form of unschooling. Hearts of the World talked with the children, explored their emotions, and gave them free reign to imagine their world. It was very powerful. Next the children were given blank anatomical heart outlines to paint with their dreams for themselves and the world. As I looked around the hut I could see that the children took this workshop very seriously. It was important to them.

Hearts of the World is creating sacred, special moments where children can look at, discover, and explore themselves and their world through creative self-expression. Hearts of the World, I salute you.

Timelapse Video: TetraPaks and Community

In light of our efforts to be sustainable through experimentation, Sadhana Forest is rebuilding some roofs with compressed TetraPak sheets. The truck left Mumbai on Monday at midnight and arrived to us (almost 1,300 km) by 8pm on Wednesday. This video serves as a testament to the TEAMWORK at Sadhana Forest in unloading 13 tons of roofing sheets in 3 hours. 

Community, family, mountains, and meat

tumblr_npko4614C71ray50qo9_1280.jpg
tumblr_npko4614C71ray50qo1_400.png
tumblr_npko4614C71ray50qo3_500.jpg
tumblr_npko4614C71ray50qo2_1280.jpg
tumblr_npko4614C71ray50qo10_1280.jpg
tumblr_npko4614C71ray50qo8_1280.jpg
tumblr_npko4614C71ray50qo4_1280.jpg
tumblr_npko4614C71ray50qo5_1280.jpg
tumblr_npko4614C71ray50qo6_1280.jpg
tumblr_npko4614C71ray50qo7_1280.jpg

Can Decreix

The last of my community visits was in Cerbere, France, just across the border from Spain. My friend was going to live here and I was getting a sneak peak at her new life. We got out at the Spain/France border at a huge train station filled with at least a dozen parallel tracks and graffitied trains. My friend turned her back to the trains, faced the impending mountain in front of us and said something like, “now we walk up for 5 minutes”. Five minutes! That’s it? We climbed the steep rock steps until reaching some small buildings nestled together across the terraces. The buildings are all identical containing 2 bedrooms, a bathroom, kitchen and open dining room/living room. The bathrooms were just for hand-washing as the compost toilets were outside where you could sit and do your business while looking down the mountain at the trains coming and going. Surreal.

What struck me about this community of 5 people plus 2 volunteers (WOOFers) was how much they lived like a family. The communal meals were small and intimate. A varied, green salad came from the garden. The wine was homemade from the inherited grape vineyards across the mountain. Conversations were fun and educational without the speakers seeming like they were trying to make it fun or educational. The day was peaceful; I chose my work of organizing their schedule from post-its scattered across a wall to a custom-designed post-it schedule chart. Pure Kate-style.

Can Decreix is special in that the Degrowth movement was founded at Can Decreix and the founders still live there. Degrowth is the idea of moving forward while remembering and implementing ideas of simplicity from the past. In their words: Research and actions to consume less and share more.  Ideas like sharing resources, growing food, trading homemade products, reflecting on these processes, and living as sustainable as possible. The goals are to enjoy life without harming the earth as opposed to being as productive as possible. I found the community to be more of a home than a formal community. They don’t offer tours, their meetings are a bit chaotic, and their focus is on communal activities rather than efficiency or productivity. It got me thinking about my own goals of wanting to do good for the earth and not being focused on making or saving money, or working myself until I’m ill.

My final reflections as I travel through communities meeting people who call themselves environmentalists, eco-friendly, and sustainable, repeatedly strikes me as hypocritical that they eat meat. This is, of course, a gross overgeneralization, but in my mind anyone who is working to save our planet would choose to be vegan. After all so much of our land and water go to feeding and raising animals for slaughter. A vegan person (indirectly) uses 600 liters LESS WATER PER DAY than a meat/dairy eater. That’s how much water it takes to grow food for, clean, and feed animals for slaughter. And we’re not even addressing the quantity of land that’s used for this. Imagine how many vegetables could be grown on that land with that water!?! Enough to feed everyone, I would bet.

Can Masdeu

tumblr_npknohntR81ray50qo3_1280.jpg
tumblr_npknohntR81ray50qo2_1280.jpg
tumblr_npknohntR81ray50qo1_1280.jpg
tumblr_npknohntR81ray50qo4_1280.jpg

Can Masdeu

One Saturday my friend planned a day for us at Can Masdeu, a permaculture-focused community and social center situated in Barcelona, off a hiking trail, 5 minutes from the subway. We took the 20-minute subway ride from the center of Barcelona, walked through a small neighborhood filled with middle-class homes, a school, and a football field, and came to what seemed like the end of the earth. After all of this well planned infrastructure we came to dirt and mountains. No signs, no “welcome to the hiking trails” or anything like that. We asked a parent outside the football field how to get to Can Masdeu. He said just walk up the trail. What trail?!?! We made our way through dirt and bushes and came across a shifty little bridge that led to a huge, turn-of-the-century leper colony and hospital.

On our tour we learned about the history of the community. The residents had fought the police, 10 years ago, declaring their rite to stay since the buildings were not otherwise being used. In the end the police backed down as the city decided that rather than pay for an information point on the hiking trails, they could offer this community (free) electricity and water in exchange for getting to stay in the buildings and open up on the weekends for hikers. The services Can Masdeu provides for the community include workshops galore happening simultaneously around the community all weekend, an organic café, a library, eco-film screenings, a free store, a meeting point for activist groups, rehabilitating the land through permaculture terraces, facilitating community gardens that surround the buildings, cooking with solar ovens, building homes out of alternative materials, and giving tours to the public. This place spoke to me! It said, “This is what you’ve been looking for! It’s urban and rural. It’s outdoors. It involves community interaction but not living with hundreds of people. This is a real future possibility.”  

CALAFOU

tumblr_npkneaNAVH1ray50qo5_1280.jpg
tumblr_npkneaNAVH1ray50qo8_1280.jpg
tumblr_npkneaNAVH1ray50qo3_1280.jpg
tumblr_npkneaNAVH1ray50qo2_1280.jpg
tumblr_npkneaNAVH1ray50qo1_1280.jpg
tumblr_npkneaNAVH1ray50qo4_1280.jpg

CALAFOU

It is exhilarating for me to visit other communities: to see how they function, to meet the people, to learn about their processes, to understand their reasons. While in Europe in April I got to spend time in 3 communities, all with their own similarities and differences.

We took a train for 2 hours outside of Barcelona. We walked about a kilometer down a dirt path, following simple, hand-made signs strapped to light posts. We arrived at the factory and warehouse. In the early 1900s this had been built in a modern-style, surrounded by a dark and dirty apartment building with tiny apartments that let in no light. The purpose was to keep the workplace sparkly clean while the village was unkempt in order to keep the workers desiring work and their workplace over home and home life. A nasty trick.

Since then the abandoned “village” has been collectively-purchased and turned into CALAFOU, an alternative community of self-described life-hackers. They live, work, or do both at CALAFOU. Walking through the somewhat decrepit buildings there was an overwhelming feeling of abandonment: fires, halves of buildings left perching in clearly not-up-to-code conditions, faded walls of punk-style graffiti, and long stretches of emptiness between inhabited rooms.

There are a handful of people who live there and more who come to work collaboratively on hack-style projects. There’s a tech room filled to the brim with organized computer parts. There’s an electronics lab with circuit boards and batteries and strange-looking objects meant to fill a functional need or a costume party need.
The old wood/metal workshop is still in working condition and available for use. When the community needs money they build some furniture to sell. They get their food from local markets and specialize in making jams (to eat and sell) from the almost-rotten produce. They turned a bathroom into a chemistry lab and make soap. They have a DIY expectation.

We got a tour from Karlos who explained that inhabitants pay 10 Euro per week for food, electricity, and water.  They share and maintain compost toilets, a van, a garden, a kitchen, and a water source that they are decontaminating from the factory’s working years. They are renovating the apartments, knocking through walls to make windows for natural light, installing compost toilets and surround sound. They have weekly assemblies where problems are discussed, plans formed, and decisions made. They are, in my opinion, a decentralized community of creators, makers and doers in a raw space.  

We spent a few hours there getting to know the people, learning about visitors who camp out on the lawn or stay in trailers in the parking lot. A few community members offered to make us lunch and were happy to oblige our vegan-ness with rice, lentils and salad. We all went out on the lawn, took off our shoes, gobbled up lunch, and chatted under the sun in a variety of languages about community life.

Arid Land Workshop

tumblr_nih18hx6t61ray50qo1_1280.jpg
tumblr_nih18hx6t61ray50qo2_1280.jpg

Arid Land Workshop

Due to popular request we hosted a workshop for 45 of our Tamil neighbors over the course of 3 days. We offered tree planting demonstrations, talks about land contour and how to maximize rain absorption, and an introduction to our community living including vegan lifestyle, gift economy, and unschooling. It was a huge success!